A brilliant business mind
John North Willys was a gifted entrepreneur who built an automotive empire from the ashes of failed companies. Born in 1873 in Canandaigua, New York, Willys began his career selling and manufacturing bicycles. He was immensely successful and had recorded over $500,000 in sales by 1900 at the age of 27. Willys saw his first automobile during a trip to Cleveland and immediately realized it would replace bicycles the preferred means of personal transportation. He returned home and opened a car dealership in Elmira, New York, selling the popular Overland brand.
However, Willys encountered a problem. A capable salesman, he was able to sell cars faster than the factory could build them. He would buy Overland Automobiles in 1907 and in 1909, acquired the Marion Motor Car Co. He later shifted production to a factory he bought from the bankrupt Pope Motor Car Co. in Toledo, Ohio, and renamed his firm Willys-Overland Motor Company in 1912. For a brief time, Willys-Overland was the second-largest carmaker in the U.S. behind Ford. In 1915, Willys built a seven-story headquarters building in Toledo that was the most modern of its day. Before the end of the decade, one-third of the city of Toledo’s workforce was employed at Willys-Overland or one of its suppliers. Despite this, labor troubles emerged at the Toledo plant in 1919, resulting in a strike that shut it down for several months. Willys hired General Motors vice-president Walter P. Chrysler to help right the ship, but Chrysler tried to oust Willys in an attempted takeover bid that backfired.
Willys was appointed the first U.S. Ambassador to Poland in 1930, serving until May of 1932, after which he returned to Toledo to find his company in financial trouble. The Great Depression caused numerous carmakers to go out of business, and much of Willys-Overland’s growth had been financed on borrowed dollars. Willys-Overland declared bankruptcy in 1933. Willys was heavily involved with the reorganization of the company when he died suddenly of a heart attack in 1935. One of the most acute business minds of his time, John North Willys helped pave the way for numerous American carmakers.